ANTH 461 A: Historical Ecology

Meeting Time: 
TTh 1:30pm - 3:20pm
* *
Ben Fitzhugh

Syllabus Description:

 AboriginalBurning-RBliege-Bird.jpg FischerGlaser2012Fig-3-Principles-of-terra-preta-formation-and-soil-biochar-interaction.png Cow-seva.jpg

1. Australian Aboriginal patch burning for  hunting.           2.  Amazonian dark soil formation          3. How to milk a cow in India.

Historical Ecology, Autumn 2017

** Important:  The novel coronavirus pandemic has created unprecedented uncertainty about the near future.  While we hope that Fall 2020 classes can proceed safely and in-person, there is a reasonable chance that this class, like others, will need to be shifted to an on-line format, as have the Spring and Summer quarters.  This syllabus does not yet reflect modifications that might (probably will) need to be made to ensure safety as well as an effective class organization if we mush proceed online. 

Anth 461 is a dynamic and fun class that I think can be successful in a distance learning format if needed.  We will work it out however things proceed.  Historical Ecology is my favorite class to teach as it brings together archaeology, history, cultural anthropology, and environmental studies to help us understand the legacies of human-environmental interaction in the past on the present. The class focuses on issues of critical contemporary importance (climate change, genetically modified food, water shortages, fire suppression, extinctions, and ... yes... even disease ecologies.  Expect to have a robust and varied reading load each week (though not too much for advanced undergraduate or graduate students), to think critically and creatively, to share what you learn through online and (we hope) in-class discussions, and to listen, learn from, and collaborate with your classmates in exploration and discovery.  The class often draws majors from across the social and natural sciences creating unique opportunities for multi-perspective discussions and insights that will help you better understand and contribute constructively to human-environmental solutions.  I look forward to having you in the class! 

Ben Fitzhugh, Professor of Anthropology and Director of the paleo-environmentally oriented UW Quaternary Research Center.



Ben Fitzhugh (242 Denny Hall):

Office hours by appointment. This is for flexibility so I can find times that work for all students.  Please DO schedule appointments with us to discuss the class or your paper.  Email is preferred for communication for setting up meetings.

Anonymous email link (disabled until start of class) if you have comments to express that you do not feel comfortable attaching your name to.


In this class, we cover archaeological and cultural anthropological dimensions of Historical Ecology. We tackle hot-button issues in environmental social science with a focus on the deep temporal legacies of human-environmental relationships. At the end of this class, students will be familiar with the intellectual histories of environmental anthropology and contemporary debates and tensions around ethics, agency, environment, and historical causality. Questions to be addressed include:

  • How is human history shaped by the physical environment?
  • How is environmental history shaped by humans?
  • How do we understand the intersection of human and environmental forces in the “Era” of the Anthropocene when humans are thought to act as a geological force?
  • Are humans inherently destructive to the environment?
  • Is the conservation crisis a recent development?
  • What is sustainable development?
  • How might we understand the relationship between Nature, capital and the politics of gender, race, and disability?

This class is designed to help you develop critical reading and thinking, collaborative learning, written and oral communication skills, understanding about the historical dimension of human interactions with environment and climate, and informed global stewardship.

This class is a seminar. The instructors' primary purpose is to facilitate and moderate discussion. Expect and be prepared to engage in active, creative, and critical discussion of each class's readings and general topics. To facilitate this process, for some topics and readings, students will be asked to take turns preparing insightful and provocative discussion questions. At other times, students will read different articles and come together to share what they learned with a small group of colleagues who read different but related pieces. For each class session, students will be required to submit or post comments on assigned readings on the discussion site associated with the class period.

Required readings are mostly scholarly articles in journals and book chapters linked on individual days' discussion pages. There is no required text and no paper class reading packet.

In addition to class discussions about readings and related topics, each student will research a historical ecological topic that addresses a contemporary human-environmental issue with insights drawn from archaeological, historical, and ethnographic cases. The last three class periods are reserved for presentation and discussion of these projects, and a paper (typed, 5000-7000 words; equivalent to 15-25 double spaced pages) will be due on Sunday, December 10 at 5:00 p.m. At intervals throughout the quarter students will be required to submit title and abstract and then an expanded abstract as steps towards the preparation of the final presentation and term paper. More details about the paper assignment can be found here.

Students will be evaluated on the basis of their class participation (on-time online posts, in-class discussion participation), and on the class research project (short abstract, expanded abstract, in-class presentation and final paper).

Grade distribution:

  • Course participation (online and in-class): 40%
  • First abstract with 5+ references: 5%
  • Expanded Abstract with 10+ references and Peer Critique: 10%
  • In-class project presentation: 20%
  • Final paper: 25%


  • If you have a preferred pronoun, feel free to mention it in or after class.

Canvas Site

This is a convenient system because it integrates all your class activities into a single web platform.  You can review and submit assignments, access online lectures and quizzes, participate in discussions, review supplementary information, and check your grades.  This web site has several features that you will need and others that you may want to use during the quarter.  But please note that Canvas is still imperfect and has several bugs and awkward features - often in how it calculates running grades!  Have patience, use the HELP links (Top Right corner of the site) to the extent possible, but please let your TA or instructor know if you get stuck or confused using it.


Student Privacy and Zoom (In case we must run the class remotely)

If this course is scheduled to run partially synchronously at your scheduled class time via Zoom expect class sessions will be recorded so that students unable to join can view them later. The recording will capture the presenter’s audio, video and computer screen. Student audio and video will be recorded if you share your computer audio and video during the recorded session. Breakout group discussions are NOT recorded by the instructor.  The recordings will only be accessible to students enrolled in the course to review materials. These recordings will not be shared with or accessible to the public.

The University and Zoom have FERPA-compliant agreements in place to protect the security and privacy of UW Zoom accounts. 

Students who do not wish to be recorded should:

  • Change their Zoom screen name to hide any personal identifying information such as their name or UW Net ID (contact the instructor if you need guidance or authorization for this), and
  • Not share their computer audio or video during their Zoom sessions.


Academic Honesty

Through the duration of this class, you are expected to treat your fellow students and the instructor honestly and with respect. You are expected to produce your own work for the class. Written exercises should be original and must properly credit intellectual sources used. Plagiarism or any other form of cheating prevents you from benefiting from the assignments, is unfair to others in the class, and will not be tolerated. If you are unsure as to what constitutes academic honesty, go to the following campus web site. This site outlines the disciplinary actions that are required when a case of dishonesty is identified. (Links to an external site.)


Disability Resources for Students

The Disability Resources for Students (Links to an external site.) (DRS) Office coordinates academic accommodations for enrolled students with documented disabilities. Accommodations are determined on a case-by-case basis and may include classroom relocation, sign language interpreters, recorded course materials, note taking, and priority registration. DRS also provides needs assessment, mediation, referrals, and advocacy as necessary and appropriate. Requests for accommodations or services must be arranged in advance and require documentation of the disability, verifying the need for such accommodation or service. Contact DRS at: 011 Mary Gates Hall, 206-543-8924 (Voice);  206-543-8925 (TTY); 206-616-8379 (Fax),


Students with Children and other Family Responsibilities

With recent classes entirely online and everyone participating from home, we are particularly sensitive to the needs of those caring for children and other family members.  If we must run this course remotely, it will be re-designed to allow for flexible participation.  Where possible, try to participate in any live class discussions. Please mute your microphone and video if children might be distracting others trying to participate in the class session.  If you have to sign off or are unable to join a live session, I will post recordings of those discussions that you can view later, and the online discussion option will allow for an alternative mode for interacting. Indeed Anth 461 has always had a significant component of online discussion in addition to in class interaction. That should help with translation of the class if need be.

If you expect to be unable to participate in class for an extended period of time, try to give us advance notice as early as possible since it is harder to make accommodations after the fact, though I understand that family care take precedence.  Please understand that there is a limit to the amount of make-up work I can provide to a student and the University has additional options available for students who find themselves unable to complete the work required to finish a class within the quarter it is taken (e.g., incomplete, hardship withdrawal, etc.). 

Catalog Description: 
Explores a global range of case studies in the historical dimension of the environment, human adaptation, and cultural change. Investigates the co-evolution of environment and culture in archaeological and historical contexts. Develops a better understanding of modern human-environmental dynamics as historically situated. In
Department Requirements: 
Anthropology of Globalization Option
Archaeological Sciences Option
GE Requirements: 
Individuals and Societies (I&S)
Natural World (NW)
Last updated: 
August 14, 2020 - 9:10pm